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African and Black American Relations: Good or Bad?

Chapter Five: The Attitude of African Americans Towards Africans
Chapter Four: The Attitude of Africans Towards African Americans
Chapter Five: The Attitude of African Americans Towards Africans

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Chapter Five:The Attitude of African Americans Towards Africans

AFRICAN AMERICANS are not a monolithic whole anymore than Africans are. But there are some things that bind them together and shape their attitude, or attitudes, towards Africa.
There is a perception among a significant number of Africans, backed up by empirical evidence derived from personal experiences with black Americans, that their brothers and sisters, or cousins, in the United States, don't want to be closely identified with Africa, if at all, and have a negative attitude towards their ancestral homeland and its people.
There are several reasons for this. Probably the most important one is that black Americans are, first and foremost, Americans, not Africans in terms of national identity and upbringing; although they are also Africans in the genealogical sense. They were born and raised in the richest, most developed, and most powerful country in the history of mankind and are a product of American culture in terms of mentality, attitudes, values, and the way they look at the world.
By contrast, Africans come from or live in the world's most backward, most diseased, and poorest continent - as conventional wisdom goes - which also is the ancestral homeland of African Americans whether they like it or not. The contrast between the two is glaring, and ruthlessly public, often thrust into the international arena and spotlight when people around the world, including black Americans, see on their television screens and in newspapers and magazines, millions of Africans starving, dying of AIDS and numerous other diseases many of them preventable, and desperately pleading and begging for help from other countries including some in the Third World such as India and Brazil.
All this has had a profound impact on African Americans and their image as Americans, yet at the same time as Africans, as well, inextricably linked with their kith-and-kin living in misery on the African continent. It is an image many of them are ashamed of. But it is also reality, a harsh reality, they cannot evade and from which they will never be able to escape.
Even many African Americans who identify themselves with Africa have an ambivalent attitude towards their motherland, and ask themselves, like Countee Cullen did, "What is Africa to me?," in his poem "Heritage":

"What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?"

The difference is that Cullen, who died in 1946 at the age of 43, wrote that poem in expression of his love for Africa, even if his passionate love for his motherland was somewhat tempered by the negative image of Africa he had known when growing up and during the rest of his short life.
And there are many African Americans today who feel the way he did. But there is another group of African Americans who are torn apart by two images of Africa. They are attracted by its beauty, and a longing for their roots, reinforcing their romantic image of Africa; yet they are repelled by the harsh realities on the continent, the poverty, the hardship, and even by the primitive condition of the people themselves, so close yet so far, separated for centuries.
I remember in the early 1980s talking to an African American woman in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who was married to a Nigerian. After she went to Nigeria and came back, she said she couldn't live in Nigeria or anywhere else in Africa because she was not used to the lifestyle and the inconveniencies.
I talked to another one who once lived in Liberia and moved back to Grand Rapids after the 1980 military coup, disgusted with the place because of what the new military rulers did, executing Americo-Liberian leaders and wreaking havoc across Monrovia, the capital. As an African American, she easily identified with the Americo-Liberians far more than she did with the "natives," if at all. And she did not put in historical perspective the injustices perpetrated against the indigenous people which prompted a 28-year-old sergeant, Samuel Doe, and 16 of his compatriots from the Liberian army, to seize power after 150 years of Americo-Liberian hegemonic control of the country to the detriment of the native population.
Yet, when she first went to Africa, she had a very romantic view of the motherland as do the majority of black Americans who go there. Compounding the problem was the hardship one experiences living in a poor and underveloped Third World country like Liberia. The same applies to the rest of the countries on the continent, the poorest of the poor in the entire world.
Many African Americans who intended to settle in Africa or live there for an indefinite period of time have been known to turn right back, after only a short stay, vowing never to return except, and that is may be, for short visits. They did not expect to see what they found and saw when they arrived there; a place so attractive, and alluring, with its majestic beauty, yet sometimes so forbidding even to the most hardened soul, except the inordinately ambitious to defy the odds. This is what prompts many Africans to ask black Americans: "What did you come here for? We are desperately trying to get out of here and go to America or some other place, and you are dying to come here!" And it is not before long that the harsh reality settles in: "It was a mistake, a big, terrible mistake, to come here. I wish I had known. I would never have left the United States."
But that is only part of the story, in fact not even half of it. A higher percentage of African Americans who go or intend to go to Africa don't have such a negative attitude towards their motherland. Many of them go there, even if not to stay. It is a pilgrimage, a physical and spiritual journey, to the motherland they have never known or seen since they were forcibly uprooted from there and transplanted on American soil permanently. Yet, even some of these returnees also feel out of place when they are in Africa. For cultural and historical reasons, they don't seem to fit in.
In spite of all this, probably an even higher percentage of African Americans, most of whom don't intend to leave the United States and go back to Africa to visit or to stay, have some kind of emotional attachment to the land of their ancestors regardless of how much they hear about this "Dark Continent" as a miserable place: desperately poor, backward, primitive, and intolerable. One clearly sees this in the support African Americans have given to Africa through years, especially during the liberation struggle, and in defending their motherland whenever it is negatively portrayed in the white-dominated media in the United States and elsewhere around the world; and when African interests are ignored by white American leaders and other vested interests.
And they probably could do more if they were not under white control. They operate in a milieu that is not of their making, and in a society whose interests do not necessarily coincide with theirs. White interests are paramount.
Yet African Americans have tried to overcome these barriers in order to help Africa. It is a positive attitude that should be acknowledged. Unfortunately, Africans have sometimes not reciprocated this feeling the way they should. As the late Nigerian scholar, Professor Claude Ake, who died at the age of 57 in a mysterious plane crash near Lagos in November 1996, said in an interview with an African journalist Walusako Mwalilino published in West Africa Review:

"Walusako Mwalilino:
'Let's talk about African Americans vis-a-vis Africans. What's your assessment of their reactions towards Africa? Are they playing a positive role regarding what's happening in Africa today? I bring this up in view of the repeated [anti-apartheid] demonstrations in front of the South African Embassy, for instance. But right now, where there have been a lot of killings in Liberia and many other African countries, the African American voice is very muted towards these happenings in African countries. Why do you think that is so? Or, am I expecting too much from them?'
Claude Ake:
'Well, I think so, because you have to look at the matter in its historical context. African Americans are doing their best in the circumstances. I think that if they could do better, they would. I do not believe...the kinds of contradictions people think...exist, [really] exist. You have to look at this whole thing in terms of the general situation of oppressed people. We are oppressed people, both Africans and African Americans. And it is much more difficult for the weak and oppressed to rally in their own defense than for the strong and the privileged to organize their own defense. That is part of the very definition of being weak.
Now, African Americans suffer discrimination, they are marginalized, they have no serious access to the media, particularly television. They have some marginal influence over some rather obscure radio stations, but no major network. They have no control over any major national newspaper. They have no control over any chain of corporations. It is only recently that they have had a governorship [of Douglas Wilder in the State of Virginia]. So their general condition, under the admission of The New York Times and in some of the surveys that have been done and published recently, they have been losing ground. Their health condition has deteriorated to that of the people in Bangladesh. And it has come to the point where, a newspaper like The New York Times, is writing about the young black male being an endangered species; of many more [black] people being in prisons than in universities. And so the years of reaction have meant a loss of even some of the marginal gains they have made.
So these are people under pressure - under tremendous amount of pressure by a system that is not only not yet given them their due, but is actually conspiring in their regression. So they're struggling to hang on against all these disadvantages in a society in which you have to have the strength to stand for yourself or nobody will stand for you. And you can see how this frustration is internalized in violence within the black community.
Yet, in spite of all this, they take interest in Africa as much as they can. Those of them who have a little leverage, like Jesse Jackson -- without minding the consequences of this [to] their political fortunes here in the United States, and on occasions where they could focus their energies profitably, as in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa -- they have done so admirably. And the visit of [Nelson] Mandela [in June 1990] was an incredible display of solidarity. So I think that we should give them credit.
Of course, compared with what other people do here for the groups in other parts of the world from which they come - for instance, like the support for Israel [by Jewish Americans] - Africa is very far from getting that kind of support. You cannot really compare. I mean, given the disadvantages [of African Americans], I really think that it is superficial to blame somebody who is marginalized, struggling in regression, that they are not doing [enough]. They are doing within the circumstances.
Now you also have to consider the other side: Africans, too, have an obligation to do for black Americans. It is not a one-way street. And Africa has not done anything for black Americans. Because, the prestige of black Americans - their ability to walk erect here - depends also partly on what we do in Africa. And what we have done in Africa in 30 years [since the independence period] is to fumble our opportunities. Instead of helping African Americans to stand erect, we are making them ashamed to be like us. And I think that a very important part of this equation is to straighten ourselves in Africa; and, in the process of doing so, try also to support the African Americans. So, it should not be a matter of one person trying to distance himself from the other or become an embarrassment, but one of recognizing our common cause, disadvantages and our marginality, and knowing that whatever any of us achieves helps the other person to have greater self-esteem, to be better respected by others, and to move forward collectively.
Walusako Mwalilino:
'In specific terms, how can African leaders assist black Americans?'
Claude Ake:
'African leaders can assist black Americans, first of all, by stopping fumbling! The African Americans don't need people sending them distraught news from Africa; they need good news from Africa. That is the first thing. That would be enough! They want to read about good news, of good examples, of people who are trying hard, of people who are confronting difficulties with courage and dignity and intelligence.
We need more examples of the Botswanas and their [economic] experiments, of progress, of prudence in management, of humanitarian concerns.
Let us give them good news so that they can be proud of the places they have come from. And when they're proud of themselves and their history, their sense of efficacy here [in the United States] will be enhanced. The material connections can come later. What they need is good news from Africa: that we should help ourselves and strengthen ourselves. Nobody likes to come from a background in which you are ashamed. And part of the reason why they can be put down here, so decisively, is precisely because we are creating a background of shame [for them].'"

And it is understandable, in a way, why they would be ashamed of such a background. If Africa was developed like Europe is, or was moving forward like some parts of Asia and even Latin America are doing, an even larger number of African Americans, probably almost all of them, would be proud of their motherland. And they would be telling the rest of the world: "See? How our motherland is doing and how it looks like? And how our people are doing over there? Just fantastic! We are on the move as a people. And we keep on moving."
But that is not the general attitude among the majority of African Americans, and for good reason. Even many Africans born and raised in Africa are ashamed of the place. Just talk to them. Hundreds of thousands of them already live in the United States permanently. They fled from Africa. And they share the same attitude towards their motherland just like many African Americans do. They are ashamed of the place, they say we could do better.
Even many black American college students, who are supposed to be enlightened, show disdain for Africans on campus and act as if they have nothing to do with them, in spite of their common identity and heritage as children of Africa regardless where they were born. And it's no just in predominantly white colleges and universities where this goes on; it goes on in black schools as well. As one Ghanaian who attended Morehouse College, an elite college for black male students in Atlanta, Georgia, stated on in October 1999 when commenting on a book written by Philippe Wamba, Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America, which also examines relations between Africans and African Americans, among other subjects:

"Born in Ghana and having lived in the US for 18 years, I share almost all of Wamba's sentiments. At my alma mater, Morehouse College, the flagship black institution, Africans were mostly looked upon with disdain.
As a practicing physician in rural Georgia now, I am exposed to very poor blacks who hail from generations of poverty and illiteracy. Almost all descended from the slave plantations that dotted this area. All of Wamba's experiences are drawn from African Americans with education (Harvard students, etc). Even among this educated group, the knowledge of Africa is minuscule.
Imagine the level of knowledge in this area in the deep south. It has never ceased to perplex me how a group of people will be so lost as to their origins. One might argue that point that, so what? What difference does it make if someone does not identify with his or her ancestral homeland?"

There is no question that many African Americans don't. That is their general attitude. But Philippe Wamba was not of them. A product of two cultures, or "two" black worlds, Philippe Wamba was born in the United States but grew up in Tanzania. His mother was an African American. His father, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, was a Congolese who once was imprisoned by President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (renamed Congo) because of his political activities and opposition to Mobutu's despotic and kleptocratic regime. He attended school in the United States, returned to Zaire, and moved to Tanzania where he became a professor at the University of Dar es Salaam. He later became the head of one of the major opposition groups which eventually toppled President Mobutu in May 1997.
Like his father and his mother, Philippe Wamba, who died in a tragic car accident in Kenya in 2002 at the age of 31, was proud of his African heritage as much as he was of his African-American background. But that is not the general attitude among the vast majority of African Americans; theirs is an ambiguity, of this dual identity as Africans in diaspora and as Americans born and raised in America. Some accept it, some don't. Many Africans feel the same way towards their brethren in the diaspora.
So, when we talk about the attitude of African Americans towards Africa, or the attitude of Africans and of African Americans towards each other, we are talking about their attitudes in a larger context, as opposed to those of individuals. But such generalization can sometimes be grossly misleading in many individual cases. That is because not everybody feels that way. I know, for example, many members of the Pan-African Congress in Detroit who were not ashamed of Africa but were, instead, very defensive of their motherland; and for good reason.
Whites have used the backwardness of Africa to demean and belittle, discredit and dehumanize, and insult African Americans, telling them they have no history or culture to be proud of, and should be glad their ancestors were taken from the jungles of Africa giving their descendants the chance, the golden chance, to be born in the land of milk and honey, in this sweet land of liberty, "'tis of thee I sing." But as Malcolm X said: "We have not enjoyed any American fruit, only thorns and thistles." And as he said on another occasion: "I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare." And he had a very positive attitude towards Africa, reminding other African Americans who were ashamed of their motherland: "You left your mind in Africa." And the general attitude of a significant number of African Americans towards Africa remains largely negative.
Yet our knowledge of the general attitude of a people, even if it is grossly misleading in many individual cases, is based on observation and cumulative knowledge derived from individual attitudes across a broad section of that particular people. For example, we talk about the general attitude of whites towards blacks based on observation and the pervasiveness and persistence of racism.
Therefore, the majority of whites are racist, is the inevitable conclusion based on empirical evidence: racism is a fact of life. It is brutal, it is pervasive and penetrates every social fabric of the American society, contrary to what black American conservatives - they don't even want to be called African Americans, just Americans - say, contending that racism is no longer a serious problem in the United States, and that black people are their own number one problem because they lack values conducive to achievement. It is a subject I have addressed in one of my books, Black Conservatives: Are They Right or Wrong?: The Black Conservative Phenomenon in Contemporary America: Contending Ideologies: Conservatism versus Liberalism.
As in the case of white attitudes towards blacks, the general attitude of Africans and of African Americans towards each other is also derived from general observation and from our experience with individuals in both groups whose attitudes, we believe, reflect a broad consensus among a very large number of people in those groups and may be even the majority. Therefore, there is some validity to the conclusion reached, for example, the belief among a significant number of Africans that many African Americans have an ambivalent attitude towards Africa: they identify with it but are uncomfortable with the image of Africa as a backward continent and may be they are even ashamed of it as their ancestral homeland.
Yet, even negative attitudes of individuals which do not reflect a broad spectrum of consensus among their people, Africans or African Americans, do show that there are problems in relations between the two groups that need to be addressed. These problems are caused mainly by lack of communication and misunderstanding between the two peoples - who are really one and the same people - and by distortion of truth about Africa by the media and other detractors of Africa, especially racists, more than anything else.
A look at some of these conflicting attitudes between the two groups may shed some light on this intractable problem for a greater understanding and possible resolution of this perennial conflict. It may not be the biggest problem Africans and African Americans face in the world, bit it is a problem nonetheless. And unless the problem is solved, all talk of racial solidarity in a world where we mean nothing to the rest of mankind - because and only because we are weak and powerless - is no more than empty rhetoric. And what is so sad is that some of these attitudes towards each other have not changed through the decades. As Tracie Reddick, a black columnist, stated in her article, "African vs. African American: A Shared Complexion Does Not Guarantee Racial Solidarity," in The Tampa Tribune:

"When Anthony Eromosele Oigbokie came to American in 1960, he heard racial slurs - not from Klansmen in white sheets - but from dashiki-wearing blacks.
'Just because African-Americans wear kente cloth does not mean they embrace everything that is African,' says Oigbokie, a Nigerian business owner in Tampa. 'I caught a lot of hell from the frat boys at Tuskegee University,' a historically black college in Alabama.
'They were always trying to play with my intelligence. This was a time when folks were shouting, 'Say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud.' Yet, when I called someone black, they would say, 'Why are you so cruel? Why are you calling us black?' If they saw me with a girl, they would yell to her, 'What are you doing with that African?'
Three decades later, not much has changed. Africans and black Americans often fail to forge relationships in the classroom and the workplace. They blame nationality, ethnicity, culture, economics and education.
'A shared complexion does not equal a shared culture, nor does it automatically lead to friendships,' says Kofi Glover, a native of Ghana and a political science professor at the University of South Florida. 'Whether we like it or not, Africans and African Americans have two different and very distinct cultures.'
'That's a fallacy,' retorts Omali Yeshitela, president of St. Petersburg's National Peoples' Democratic Uhuru Movement, a black nationalist group whose name means 'freedom' in Swahili. Yeshitela is from St. Petersburg and was formerly known as Joe Waller.
Whether blacks live on the Ivory Coast or the Atlantic Coast, Yeshitela contends, 'we're all the same. There are no cultural differences between Africans and African Americans.'
Na'im Akbar, a psychology professor at Florida State University, sides with Glover. 'The only way we'll ever begin to appreciate each other is to recognize and embrace our cultural differences,' says Akbar, who was born in America. Slavery is the tie that binds, but the legacy also keeps the two groups apart. Some local blacks argue the closest they've ever come to Africa is Busch Gardens. The fact that African leaders profited from selling others is a betrayal many blacks refuse to forgive or forget.
'A lot of us do harbor a lot of hostility toward Africans,' says Tampa poet James Tokley. 'Many Africans have no idea what our ancestors endured during slavery.' Glover agrees that while some Africans suffered under colonial rule and apartheid, not all can relate to the degradation of slavery.
In Ghana, he says, 'we did not experience white domination like the Africans in Kenya, Zimbabwe or South Africa. We do not understand the whole concept of slavery, or it's effect on the attitude of a lot of African Americans, mainly because we were not exposed to it. To read about racism and discrimination is one thing, but to experience it is something else.'
Much bad blood stems from interactions between Africans and whites, Oigbokie says. For example, he ate at some segregated restaurants in the 1960s. 'A lot of African Americans were upset that white people would serve me but not them,' he says.'They felt the system gave us better treatment than it gave them.' Many black Americans are ignorant about Africans, Oigbokie adds. They share comic Eddie Murphy's joke that Africans 'ride around butt-naked on a zebra.' 'They think we want to kill them so that we can eat them,' Oigbokie says, laughing. 'I remember a black person once asked me if I knew Tarzan. I told him, 'Yes, he is my uncle.''
Glover, who also teaches African studies at USF, says these perceptions are rooted in all the negative things we've been taught about each other. 'A lot of African Americans were taught that Africa was nothing more than just a primitive, backward jungle from whence they came,' he says. Meanwhile, Africans have picked up whites' fear of blacks. 'Our perception of African Americans is that they are a race of people who carry guns and are very, very violent.' Africa's tribal wars often-times mirror black-on-black violence in America, and some ask how is it possible to form friendships with all this intra-racial friction.
'I have seen us come together in great magnificence,' Yesihitela says, citing, as an example, Marcus Garvey, founder of a back-to-Africa movement in the 1920s. 'He was very successful in bringing about the unity of African people.' Africans admire the American struggle for civil rights. Yet, when some come to America and discover black is not so beautiful, they insist on maintaining a separate identity. 'When indigenous African people come to the United States, they adopt an attitude of superiority...about individuals who could very well be of their own blood.' Tokley says.
Some African customs, such as female circumcision, shock Americans. Other traditions have been forgotten, or, in the case of Kwanzaa, invented in America. Africans tend to have a strong patriarchal system, with differences in attitudes about family and work. 'The women's liberation movement has barely caught up to Africa,' says Cheikh T. Sylla, a native of Senegal and the president of a Tampa architecture firm. 'That's why I think many unions between African men and African-American women don't tend to last. Most African-American women are like, 'I'm not going to put up with the notion that you are the absolute head of the household.'' says Sylla, who does not mind his American wife's feisty ways. Sylla says he's baffled by blacks' unwillingness to take advantage of America's many opportunities and their willingness to blame most problems on race.
'When most Africans come here, their first priority, by and large, is education,' he says. 'Right here you have a tool that allows you to open doors within American society.' 'There was no king in my family or any other type of royalty in my lineage. I had to work to earn every single penny I won, and it was brutal. The African-American experience is so profound that at times I don't think I can appreciate it. I understand it must be recognized as a matter of history, but it cannot be held as a justification for one's inability to succeed.'
In 1990, the median household income of an African immigrant was $30,907, according to the Center for Research on Immigration Policy in Washington, D.C. That compares with $19,533 for black Americans. Africans who immigrate to the United States come largely from the educated middle class of their countries. The research center reports 47 percent are college graduated and 22 percent have a professional specialty. Only 14 percent of black Americans graduate from college. 'Most of the friction between African people centers around the class issue,' Yeshitela says. He says when blacks and Africans fight over jobs, they are buying into a conspiracy to keep them at odds. 'I don't like the artificial separations that won't allow the two of us to get together. It is not in our best interest to always be at each other's throat.' Especially since the two groups are in the same boat now, Akbar says.
'If you visit Nigeria or Ghana, the masses of the people are locked in the same circumstances as poor African Americans,' he says. 'Both groups seem content to do nothing other than what they are currently doing. However, the denial among Africans comes from living in a place where all the bodies that surround them look the same as they do. That makes it easier for them to fail to see that the folks who are controlling the whole economy of Nigeria are the oil barons - and they don't look anything like (black) Africans.'
Another point of contention, Akbar says, is that blacks appreciate their heritage more than Africans do. 'We have to convince them to preserve the slave dungeons in Ghana or to continue the weaving of the kente cloth.' Tours to Africa are booming. Feeling rejected at home, many middle-class blacks turn to Africa, Yeshitela says. 'But in the final analysis, culture won't free you. Any ordinary African will tell you a dearth of culture is not the source of our affliction. We're faced with a situation where 3 to 10 percent of the total trade in Africa happens in Africa. The rest is exported from Africa. The future of all black-skinned people centers in Africa. That is our birthright and someone else has it. The struggle we have to make lies in reclaiming what is rightfully ours.'"

While a significant number of African Americans are genuinely proud of their heritage, there is another large number of those who are not, even if they don't deny their African origin. And there may be a general impression that black Americans who are most ashamed of Africa are those least knowledgeable about the continent, forming negative impressions from Tarzan movies and other shows on television which portray Africa in a negative way, even if what they depict is true; for example, famine stalking the land. They also hear negative stories about their ancestral homeland.
Yet, even those who know enough about Africa, including many who have travelled to the continent, harbor stereotypes not very much different from those of their less knowledgeable brethren. In fact, their "in-depth" knowledge of the continent, including first-hand knowledge derived from their trips to Africa, gives them some sort of credibility - among other black Americans in America - as authorities on the motherland, passing on their stereotypical views as empirical facts. And that is a tragedy, not only in terms of negative portrayal of Africa, but also in terms of relations between Africans and African Americans that are tempestuous at times.
This reminds me of what one African American said to me when I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the early eighties, about his experience with Africans in Africa. When he was a college student in the seventies, he went to West Africa at least twice - may be even three times - and visited Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. He said he liked his ancestral homeland and even adopted an African name from Ghana. He met people from all walks of life who were very friendly, and he liked all that, except one thing: their nasty habit of not washing their hands, or washing their hands in the same bowl of water they passed around as the water got dirtier and dirtier until it turned almost brown; getting ready to eat from the same dish, dipping with their fingers small lumps of fufu (West African stiff porridge, what we in East Africa call ugali in Kiswahili) into a bowl of stew with some meat in it: fish, chicken, or whatever.
When he got back to the United States, he returned with images of Africa that left an indelible mark on his mind. And what he saw was enough for him to judge virtually all Africans the same way. As he put it: "The people were very friendly. But you guys, I don't know. They didn't wash their hands or washed them in the same bowl. Their hands were dirty."
He said he saw all that during his trip to West Africa. I asked him if all the people - if any at all - he met in West Africa did not wash their hands, or washed their hands in the same bowl of water, before eating. Yet nothing could dissuade him from his blanket condemnation of "all" Africans as unhygienic, a people with a nasty habit of not washing their hands. I conceded that it is true that people in African countries, including Tanzania where I come from, wash their hands in the same bowl, and they do pass it around to others for them also to wash their hands before they all start dipping into the same dish. It signifies brotherhood, and humility putting none above the rest, although I did not defend the practice on hygienic grounds.
But not all Africans do that, probably not even the majority. In fact, I remember asking him point blank: "Are you saying all the people you met in West Africa, in all the countries you visited, did not wash their hands, or washed their hands in the same bowl of water, before they ate?" He did not want to concede the obvious, that it was not true that not even all the people he met in West Africa did not wash their hands or washed their hands in the same bowl of water before they started eating.
Yet, that is the stereotypical view he had of all of us Africans as a primitive, backward people, with poor hygiene and nasty habits of not washing our hands and much more; probably not going through the whole ritual even after attending the call of nature, just taking off, instead.
Now, because he had been to Africa, twice at least, it would have been very easy for many black Americans in America who had never been to Africa to believe him. And they probably did; not all, but probably many of them, if not the majority, thus reinforcing and even confirming their negative stereotypes of all Africans as a backward people with all kinds of nasty habits they - as civilized Americans - had nothing to do with. After all, here was someone who had been to Africa twice, at least, and was speaking with "authority," from "experience," and from what he saw there. It was first-hand knowledge, I concede, but twisted.
It is these kinds of stereotypes even among educated and highly knowledgeable African Americans which have many Africans thinking "black Americans think they are better than we are." And it's very damaging to relations between the two.
Equally damaging is the attitude among some black Americans - yes, African Americans - to make fun of Africans as a people "who have nothin' over there. They ain't used to nothin'. Nothing good. I mean nothin'."
Africans in the United States who are successful, with good jobs, homes, and cars, have now and then been subjected to such indignities. Some of this comes from jealousy. But it is true that a significant number of Africans have overheard some black Americans talking about them in a very negative way, saying "they're in paradise now. They had nothing where they came from," or something like that.
I have heard that myself more than once, and so have many others. Probably some black Americans, just like many whites, won't even believe that I have written many books which are found in university libraries in many countries around the world and are used as college textbooks. "Who, him? Wrote what? That so-and-so from Tanzania? From the jungle? He don' even know no English!" What the double negative means, so commonly used by many Americans.
There is no end to stereotypes about Africa and Africans. Even if you tell people who harbor such stereotypes that there are, for example, more than 30,000 Nigerian doctors practicing in the United States, saving countless lives mostly American, they won't believe it; none of it.
I am here again reminded of what the African American who went to West Africa said to me in the early eighties in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with regard to all this, as stereotypes go. He sometimes pretended to be joking. But I knew he always meant what he said about Africa even if in a sleek way. And he found it to be amusing, of course. I remember him saying one day: "You don't have this in Africa, do you?" He was talking about chicken, some chicken, and rice! One of the most common dishes we have all over Africa even in villages where many people are desperately poor. This reminds me of the mopani worms some whites talk about in a commercial on American television, telling some Africans (supposedly from Zimbabwe, Botswana or South Africa where some people eat these worms) to taste and eat some chicken, instead of mopani worms, as if they have never eaten chicken all their lives and we have no chicken in Africa.
The African American in question also knew full well that we have chicken and rice all over Africa. He himself ate rice and chicken many times when he was in West Africa, by his own admission.
The point I am trying to make is this: It's not that he didn't know that was true. He knew it was true. People eat plenty of rice and chicken in Africa. Even the blind know that. But he had something entirely different in his mind. He was still trying to portray Africa in a negative way as a place where the people "have nothin'. Ain't used to nothin' good. Nothing!" And he compounded all this with his rendition of "America the beautiful, from sea to shining sea," and ended on a sweet note: "You guys love it here, don't you?"
The conclusion is obvious. We had run away from hell in Africa to live in paradise in America.
And there is some truth to that, we must admit; not necessarily that life is hell in Africa, and America is heaven for us. It is true in the sense that most Africans who live in the United States believe they have better opportunities to succeed in America than they do in Africa. And the majority of them do realize their dreams: be it getting college degrees and good paying jobs or whatever they intend to do. Nobody has forced them to stay in America. "Why are you here, then, if life isn't better in America than it is in Africa? Who forced you to stay here?" And they are legitimate questions. We have to admit that. It's not impenetrable logic, but pretty tight, with empirical evidence against those who refute the validity of this argument: that things are better than they are in Africa for African immigrants who have settled in the United States. As Americans, black and white as well as others, love to say: "America is number one! Love it or leave it!"
Whether any of that is true or not is besides the point in this context. It is the stereotype that is drawn from all this, especially by African Americans of all people, that is relevant to what I am saying. Africa is portrayed as the very antithesis of America, the opposite of everything America has achieved; although it is worth remembering - especially for African Americans who are descendants of African slaves - that it was Africans, not Europeans, who laid the foundation of the United States and built this country in its early years with their slave labor, and continued to do so through the years.
The foundation they laid eventually made the United States the richest and most powerful country on earth, with more than 50 percent of the entire world's wealth, while they got nothing, absolutely nothing, in return; not even a mule and 40 acres they were promised after the end of slavery. In fact, it is highly unlikely that America would even have survived as a nation had it not been for the labor extracted from African slaves who "worked from can't see in the morning to can't see in the evening, without being paid a dime, not a dime," as Malcolm X said.
But all that is ignored, or gets lost in the confusion caused by stereotypes about Africa as if they are more important than relations between Africans and African Americans. That's utter nonsense.